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Shutdown deadline looms as Congress returns to work

Federal lawmakers are back on Capitol Hill today with a lengthy to-do list. The top question: will Republicans shut down the government again?
A man runs through a closed National Mall in Washington, DC, Oct 3, 2013.
A man runs through a closed National Mall in Washington, DC, Oct 3, 2013.
Congress returns to work today after six weeks off, and members are confronted with a daunting to-do list. The New York Times described it this way in this morning's edition:

When Congress returns for business on Tuesday, lawmakers have scheduled a mere 12 legislative days to find a bipartisan compromise to keep the government open, vote on one of the most contentious foreign policy matters in a generation, reconcile the future of funding for Planned Parenthood and roll out the red carpet -- and a few thousand folding chairs -- to greet Pope Francis. What could go wrong?

Actually, I think the Times is understating matters. According to the official House leadership calendar, there really are only 10 legislative days before current federal spending levels expire, raising the very real possibility of a government shutdown. Congress may yet add work days to their schedule, but members were off last week, they'll be off again early next week for Rosh Hashanah; they'll take another day off on Sept. 23, and Sept. 24 is Pope Francis' speech to a joint session.
And yet, a number of important things need to happen fairly soon. Lawmakers will vote before Sept. 17 on whether to kill the international nuclear agreement with Iran; the National Highway Trust Fund runs out of money next month; and a debt-ceiling increase will need to pass a month later.
But the question on many minds is whether Republicans will shut down the government again at the end of the month. There are 12 spending bills that fund federal operations, all of which must pass both chambers and be signed by President Obama before existing funding expires on Sept. 30 at midnight. So far, the GOP-led House has passed six of these appropriations measures, while the GOP-led Senate has passed zero.
Complicating matters, the key players are divided on sequestration caps -- remember "the sequester"? -- with Republicans eager to eliminate the limits on their priorities, but not on Democrats'.
The odds of Congress and the White House striking a deal on all of the appropriations bills before the deadline are poor. The chances of them reaching an agreement on an omnibus spending package -- combining all of the spending bills into one big bill -- aren't much better.
So that leaves two options: (1) a short-term extension; or (2) another Republican shutdown.
For Republican leaders, the former is obviously preferable to the latter. Indeed, for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), it's not even a tough call -- they want to kick the can down the road a bit and figure out a broader solution later.
Problem solved? In theory, the president and congressional Dems would almost certainly go for a short-term extension -- a "continuing resolution" -- but they're not the problem in this little drama. Rather, far-right lawmakers, most notably Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), keep insisting that they'll oppose any spending package, including a short-term fix, that provides any funding for Planned Parenthood.
An ugly showdown, by all appearances, is probably unavoidable. I'd say the odds of a shutdown are roughly 50-50.
* Disclosure: My wife works for Planned Parenthood, but she played no role in this piece and isn't involved in the government-shutdown fight.